Idea Factories

"What’s your idea?” reads a plaintive sign on the chain-link fence surrounding Michigan Central Station, in Detroit. The train station, designed by the same firm that designed Grand Central, but on a yet-grander scale, has been seeking a new animating idea since 1988, when Amtrak stopped sending trains through it. Its cavernous Beaux Arts hall and 18-story office tower sit empty, stripped, windows blown out, trees sprouting from the roof.

Detroit, of course, was first fattened and then torn apart by the combination of two big ideas, the automobile and mass production. Together, they made Detroit one of the world’s richest cities for a time, then equipped its workers to drive away in affordable vehicles on new highways to distant suburbs.

Even the revered innovator who had the inspiration to combine those two ideas eventually became their prisoner. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, who had a sophisticated sense of design, pleaded with his father to pursue new ideas, to try sleeker looks and more powerful engines. But Henry insisted on sticking with the Model T long after competitors began eating into its market (much as the American automakers as a group would later dismiss Japanese innovations). Some auto historians believe Henry’s cruel stubbornness destroyed his sensitive son, who died at 49. Ford executives later hit on an idea to honor Edsel: in 1957, they named a daring new sedan after him, and thus compounded his tragic tale.

So experience suggests that it is hard, at the outset, to distinguish the good ideas from the bad, or even to anticipate all the consequences of the good. As P. J. O’Rourke writes on page 82, some of the biggest ideas of the past century were also the worst. But nothing moves forward without an idea, and without some risk, and it is in that spirit that for a fifth year we present our annual Ideas Issue. We’re not out to celebrate ideas in themselves, as though all are equally or intrinsically good; we are out to help promote the never-ending (we hope) argument, the contest of ideas.

As for the contest over Michigan Central, Julia Reyes Taubman, the creator of a haunting book of photographs called Detroit: 138 Square Miles, has her own idea: “I think somebody should put an architectural fence around it,” she told me while we were admiring the building together not long ago. “And then we should just watch it fall down over the next 100 years.” (Close readers will notice that Taubman reemerges in these pages as a character in “Ice Man,” a short story by her friend Elmore Leonard.) I once heard a similar idea from the artist Camilo José Vergara, who proposed that part of Detroit be made a “ruins park,” back when I lived there in the mid-’90s and would wander the deserted train station.

Like art, Detroit’s abandoned buildings challenge visitors and inspire wonder, in their original grandeur and the ways nature works upon it. But most people, understandably, want to bring life back: as ideas for Michigan Central, they have proposed a sports complex for a local women’s roller-derby league, a movie studio, a mall, or even, radically, a place where trains would come and go. It is hard to see how any of these ideas will become reality. But who knows? Smallish ideas are taking root around Detroit, filling some of the holes left by the big ones.

Among Edsel Ford’s ideas to improve his city was to commission the Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint murals, depicting auto production, in a sunlit court in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Around the same time—the early 1930s—Nelson Rockefeller also commissioned murals from Rivera, for Rockefeller Center. In both cases, Rivera, a Marxist, embedded socialist imagery in his work. In New York, Rockefeller had the paintings destroyed. In Detroit, clergy attacked Rivera’s murals as blasphemous, and The Detroit News called them un-American. Edsel protected Rivera’s art.

On my recent visit, Ford’s magnificent Highland Park plant, the birthplace of the moving assembly line, sat silent. Ford uses it for storage. It is closed to the public and, though gigantic, feels overlooked if not forgotten, a missed opportunity to tell an inspiring story about creativity and hard work. Yet down Woodward Avenue that same morning, schoolchildren filled Edsel Ford’s court in the Detroit Institute of Arts, admiring the murals, which are called Detroit Industry. No doubt many were bored; but surely some were getting ideas of their own.